Dean McPhee is a solo electric guitarist from Yorkshire – still a relatively rare sighting compared with the legions of acoustic soloists and singer-songwriters. Partly as a result of this, his music has an engaging otherworldliness, but this is greatly enhanced by his use of reverb and tremolo effects and by his patient approach to composition and performance.
McPhee is emphatically not interested in shredding – he seems much more concerned with a particular quality of mood and feeling that can be drawn from his instrument and the technology associated with it. Whilst he may have shared live music bills with the likes of James Blackshaw or Michael Chapman, there’s little hint either of the Takoma school guitarists who initially influenced Blackshaw, nor either the folk evangelism or recent avant-garde excursions of Chapman. There is a sepulchral, spiritual sound to this music (perhaps partly in the steely focus and devotion with which McPhee plays), although it does not appear to be overtly religious in outlook or inspiration. It is perhaps more about reflection, thought and dreams.
For those in the know, Fatima’s Hand, McPhee’s third recording, is long awaited, many of these pieces having been performed in concert over the past few years and developed further since their first airings. McPhee is clearly a dedicated, cautious craftsman, and whilst these mostly lengthy pieces might feel like meditative improvisations, it is clear that there are strong elements of both preparation and development in McPhee’s work. Glass Hills, for example, feels purposefully circuitous, circling around a possible event or feature without ever quite resolving its persistent questions. It leads to a sense, recurrent throughout McPhee’s music, that the sense of calm and reflection is only barely masking something disquieting or threatening. It is very much the calm before the storm.
So much of McPhee’s signature style seems to be found in his finding relationships between the lower and higher strings on his guitar. He keeps returning to key underpinning low notes, sometimes to the extent that they become drones – these anchor his pieces, whilst his use of echo and the delicate, almost reticent moves into higher registers of the instrument hint at alternative worlds. The title track, perhaps the most patiently unfolding of these five pieces, finds McPhee creating something close to a bass line – its recurrent motifs in the lower end almost reaching for momentum. His music is very transporting – but without having sweeps of movement within it. In fact, his pieces are often weirdly static, in a way that encourages thought and, on Solar Crown, particularly, a sense of reverence and appreciation for the world McPhee creates.
The undoubted highlight here, however, is Effigy Of Clay, the piece where McPhee seems most keen to escape from his meticulously constructed sound world. With its more textural approach, shimmering sheets of sound and occasional bursts of mechanistic clamour – it points at a number of future directions McPhee might take to avoid repeating himself too much. For now, though, Fatima’s Hand is another evolution for McPhee’s singular playing style, and a characteristically immersive, absorbing experience.